In America, we hold some truths to be self-evident: our news should report facts, and our personal communications should be private. Given the scandal rocking Britain over Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid paper News of the World and his huge influence over US media, both of these notions could be in jeopardy.
James Murdoch announced today that amidst a growing furor, News of the World will cease publication on Sunday. Far from resolving the problem, this radical step raises the question of just how deep this scandal goes. The Murdoch-owned paper The Sun has faced similar allegations of phone hacking this year, and no investigation has yet been conducted to see if similar abuses occurred at Murdoch-owned papers here in the United States.
For years now, Murdoch’s News of the World has been trying to tamp down the widening scandal involving its reporters who violated the privacy of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family by hacking into their voicemails in search of juicy stories. The scandal finally boiled over this week, as the Guardian reported that they had sunk much lower: after 13-year-old Milly Dowler was abducted on her way home from school in 2002, News of the World hacked into her phone, listened to her voicemails and deleted several messages—apparently to free more space for Milly’s friends and family to leave new messages the paper could listen in on. This led both the police and Milly’s family to believe Milly was still alive and clearing her messages, which not only impeded the authorities’ search for her abductor but also gave Milly’s parents false hope that their daughter was still alive and would come home safely. Her remains were found six months later.
These revelations have rocked Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron called them “shocking.” Labour party leader Ed Miliband has called for Rebekah Brooks, former News of the World editor and now one of Murdoch’s top lieutenants, to resign. MP Tom Watson is calling for the suspension of Murdoch’s son and heir apparent James, who has been transferred out of the country to New York amid speculation that the scandal would only continue to grow.
This is anything but an isolated incident. News of the World spent years invading peoples’ privacy: it was how they did business. The younger Murdoch personally approved an enormous settlement related to phone hacking, and alleged abuses are still being uncovered. The most recent of those include the families of the victims of the terrorist bombings of the London Underground, who have come forward to say their phone messages were hacked too. Despite charges that Brooks knew about the hacking, Murdoch has stated unequivocally that she will remain in leadership. Brooks says it is “inconceivable” that she knew of Milly Dowler’s phone hacking, but it strains credibility that executives could be blind to the fact that the paper was invading people’s privacy for years. At best, it’s an inexcusable lack of oversight; at worst, it’s a conspiracy to spy on private citizens to sell papers. Either way, it requires action and accountability from the top, and Murdoch’s continued support of his long-time lieutenant is one more indication that he puts his personal and political agenda above good business and the common good.
Which brings us back to the United States, where Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. When asked point-blank this spring whether his company was hacking people’s phone messages here, Murdoch flatly refused to answer. US shareholders are suing News Corp. for nepotism over the purchase of Murdoch’s daughter’s company at a highly inflated price and her subsequent promotion to the News Corp. board.
One of the largest News Corp. holdings, Fox News, routinely peddles misinformation about climate change, uses racially charged rhetoric and openly promotes Republican positions and candidates, all while pretending to present “fair and balanced” news. Fox News’s Washington managing editor Bill Sammon was even found pushing his staff to tie President Obama to socialism on air, even as he admitted the claim was “rather far-fetched.” And advertisers wary of sponsoring dubious content have been fleeing Fox News here just as they are fleeing News of the World in Britain due to indecent, if not illegal, activity.
These are not the problems of a few bad apples but of a whole rotten barrel that threatens news standards and journalistic ethics. For a media icon like Murdoch, who looms large in American culture, scant attention has been paid to the financial and cultural implications of such mismanagement, or to the disregard for public interest from a major media conglomerate. If Murdoch wants to have a positive legacy in journalism, he needs to win back the trust of his millions of consumers who like their businesses clean, their privacy intact and their news to be factual. And if we in America care about the impact of corporate behavior on our lives and our political discourse, we had better start asking some questions.